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Arts and Culture

'In The Heights' Star Anthony Ramos Says The Movie Sees 'Good In Every Hood'

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) runs a corner bodega and dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic in <em>In the Heights</em>.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) runs a corner bodega and dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic in <em>In the Heights</em>.

The first time actor Antony Ramos saw In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway production about a Latinx community in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood, he was floored.

"The pulse of this musical, it feels close to me," he says. "I hadn't felt that watching a musical ever. ... Watching In the Heights, it just gave me this hope, like, wow, this is what a Broadway show can be."

Now Ramos is starring — and singing and dancing and rapping — in the film adaptation of In the Heights. He plays Usnavi, a young man who runs a corner bodega and dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic, which he left when he was 8.

Ramos says the neighborhood portrayed in the movie reminds him of the projects of Bushwick, Brooklyn, where he grew up.

"There were moments of trauma and stuff like that," he says. "But at the end of the day, there was so much good, too. ... I'm grateful that we have a movie about a neighborhood like Washington Heights where we see ... this diverse cast together and celebrating not only the community, but where they come from, and celebrating life. ... There's good in every hood."

Ramos had a dual role as abolitionist John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in the Broadway production and film version of Hamilton. Ramos is now in the new season of HBO's In Treatment, as Eladio, who has mostly virtual sessions with a therapist played by Uzo Aduba.


Interview Highlights

On feeling represented by the Broadway production of In the Heights

I sat and watched this show, and I just saw all these characters on the stage. ... And I felt like I'm watching my cousins and my aunts and uncles on the stage right now, like friends that I grew up with. And these people are speaking vernacular that's familiar to me. ...

I grew up in Bushwick with my mom and my two siblings, my older brother, my younger sister, [in a] predominantly Latino neighborhood — Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans. It was what we call a barrio. It was rough. But, it's funny, Washington Heights, the pulse of that neighborhood, the music and the food and just people yelling from their windows out to someone downstairs or the kids opening the fire hydrants — there were all these similarities between the neighborhood I grew up in and Washington Heights.

On how a high school drama teacher helped him land a college scholarship

All my applications got withdrawn because I missed the deadline for the financial aid forms. And she was like, "Hope is not lost," — because I was feeling hopeless. I was thinking about going into the Navy. She was like ... "You need to audition for this one school called AMDA [American Musical and Dramatic Academy]." ... [I said] "All right, I'm going to audition."

I get in, [but] I couldn't afford it. ... She said, [apply to] the Jerry Seinfeld scholarship ... I said, "Do they know what my grades are like?" She's like, "Yes, it's OK. They still want to meet you." ...

And I sit with this woman ... and I just told my story and I basically said ... "I need a shot. I just need somebody who's going to give me a chance. My grades are not ... a reflection of who I am. I just need a chance." We got emotional and I shared things about my life, how I grew up. And then I left and the school's calling me for this crazy loan. I couldn't afford it, and I asked the guy to give me one more day. ... Two hours later, [she] called me and said, "Hey, Anthony, we don't usually get the scholarship to people with these grades, but we want to pay for your school for all four years."

On getting appendicitis right when Hamilton opened on Broadway

It was in between shows. It was a two-show day. I'll never forget it. I was in excruciating pain. I was sitting in my dressing room, and I was like, let me at least try to take a nap or something. I was trying to eat lunch, couldn't do it. I was like, all right, let me lay down. Pain was so bad I had to call out. I just told my stage manager, "I can't do it. I'm so sorry." I couldn't. I was in so much pain. ...

[My brother and I] went straight to the hospital. I think it was Mount Sinai. And they're like, "Yo, you have appendicitis, bro. ... You need surgery." I literally said, "Can we do this next week?" "No, we have to do this now." ... They take me into that room. They take my appendix out. I was crazy. I was on all these drugs. ...

Then the doctors said, "Yeah, you gotta be out of your show for a month." I'm like, "Bro, if I'm out of the show for a month, I don't get paid!" We just got to Broadway, [I'm] broke! Think about it: You're going through this life-or-death situation ... and the thing I'm thinking about is like, yo, I gotta pay my rent, bro. ... I was supposed to be out of the show for a month and, you know, we cut it down to two weeks. They modified the show a little bit for me. ... Then we recorded the cast album. We recorded the cast album shortly after I had this appendectomy, and I had to sit on a stool in the studio in between takes. I would stand up, cut my vocal, and then I'd sit on the stool.

On becoming a Calvin Klein underwear model

I still got to wake up some days and be like, yo, my man, you're good enough. You still have those days where you're like, man, my ears are big. My eyes look like this. I got this one strand of hair that won't go down. ... I was so surprised. I was like, What? Do they have the right person?

Lauren Krenzel and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.